Pandemic and Online Shopping Spark Urban Planning Revolution

By Dominic Ellis
In an online shopping age, how can towns and cities retain their pulling power - and does technology hold the key to success?

Depending on your outlook, these are terrifying or exciting times for towns and cities globally. Many are being forced to re-evaluate their services and profiles, amid the work-from-home and buy-from-home revolution that has swept every continent during the pandemic.

If you draw on history, such as the UK’s new town boom after the second world war, the next period could spark untold construction and infrastructure opportunities, especially as the ‘reset’ coincides with renewed emphasis on sustainable development. With 68 percent of the global population expected to live in cities by 2050, according to the UN, don’t write cities off just yet.

But much remains uncertain. A year on from the teeth of the crisis, no one knows whether commuters and business travel will return in droves, and if towns and cities will be able to reposition themselves. What we do know is online sales have grown by more than 50 percent in nine months, and food channels have boomed – up from 6.5 percent pre-COVID to around 15 percent now – which has major implications for cafés and restaurants.

The figures are harrowing. The British Retail Consortium reports non-food retail stores will have lost £30bn in foregone sales over the three lockdowns. The Centre for Retail Research states 188,685 retail jobs were lost between March 23 2020 and March 31 this year, and there have been 15,153 store closures. 

KPMG’s Future of towns and cities post COVID-19 report highlights how retail will never again represent the same size and space, and high streets will have to become multi-purpose locations.

The report contains an alarming table showing the impact of accelerated online adoption on local high streets, which brings home the impact of the crisis – a person, and family, behind every four-figure job loss. All in, it believes up to 400,000 jobs have gone from UK high streets.

London (12,214) understandably has seen the biggest losses – albeit the city is a relative outlier as it doesn’t have a single contiguous city centre, and boasts plentiful cultural attractions which will doubtless draw business back. Basingstoke tops the table – while it lost 2,602 jobs, this represented 39 percent of its total retail – and commuter towns such as Hemel Hempstead and Bracknell have also been hit hard, and consequently head the list of those whose residents are expected to continue to work at home after COVID (27.4 percent).

"Almost all companies will maintain physical space, but it will be there for three main purposes: collaboration, creativity and culture, and there will be less space devoted to standard desk space for tasks that could be done remotely," said Andy Pyle, Head of Real Estate, KPMG in the UK.

The fall in retail property values is already underway. By attracting new tenants for prime commercial property that will now find the rent affordable, town and city centres may be able to serve their inhabitants differently, such as:

  • New tenants could include universities expanding their remit to help support workers who lost their jobs, and help them acquire new skills in high growth sectors – eg in the green economy, health and technology
  • Other new tenants could include incubators sponsored by private business
  • Local communities could be further served with a variety of new community centres

It concludes that high streets will need to be reimagined as cultural and recreational hubs that act as magnets for businesses and jobs that can transform less prosperous areas.

The World Economic Forum says ‘a digital core’ is integral to powering the cities of the future.

"Smart cities are no longer simply a ‘nice to have’ but a choice that governments must proactively make to attract and retain talent, stay prepared for future crises and thrive,” it states.

"Cities need to build a digital foundation that can weave an integrated and seamless digital fabric across the public, private and citizen spheres. This will help them build a “whole-of-society” capability to not only respond and manage the next generation of crises but also to build a truly smart and efficient engine for growth."

How COVID-19 is helping shape the city of the future | World Economic Forum (

Planning for the future

The UK Government unveiled its Planning for the Future white paper last August in a bid to streamline and modernise the planning process, and improve outcomes on design and sustainability, as it acknowledged that the ‘make-do-and-mend’ approach is no longer viable.

There is increasing acceptance that technology and infrastructure development need to be more integrated, not separate entities, and the pandemic has highlighted the need for modern digital planning services that can be accessed from home.

“It is also time for the planning system finally to move towards a modernised, open data approach that creates a reliable national picture of what is happening where in planning, makes planning services more efficient, inclusive and consistent, and unlocks the data needed by property developers and the emerging Property Technology sector, to help them make more informed decisions on what to build and where,” the white paper states.

To speed up construction where development has been permitted, it proposes, in the revised National Planning Policy Framework, that masterplans and design codes for sites prepared for substantial development should seek to include “a variety of development types from different builders” which allow more phases to come forward together.

Ed McCoy, Sales Director at Barratt West London, said historic brownfield sites, such as disused factories, often represent a distinct moment in a community’s history – and opportunity for regeneration.

“Where we are transforming these underused sites, we aim to celebrate that history, whilst ensuring any new building will play a significant role in the community’s future. For example, we are working with award winning architects dMFK in the careful restoration of the former Nestlé building at Hayes Village, leaving no stone unturned.

“The iconic white and blue Art Deco façade will be preserved, with replica heritage windows, industrial style metal balconies and the innovative weaving of historic factory machinery and artefacts into the interior architecture. We hope to sensitive restoration creates beautiful homes where residents chose to live and stay.”

Taking up the challenge

Scoop has appointed POD Architects to start the reconfiguration of The Thistles Shopping Centre in Stirling - a 500,000sq ft space housing 90 units. Most, if not all, of the anchor tenants now have a strong online presence, but the centre remains at the heart of the community.

Mark Hewett, Director at Scoop, said the high-street is expected to take on a very different form post-Covid. "Future-proofing is vital to ensure primary shopping centres remain relevant and a place where people want to be – they will be about far more than just shopping. We are looking forward to evolving The Thistles Shopping Centre to ensure it remains the beating heart of the city."

Paul Shedden, Founder of POD Architects, said requirements for retail, and shopping centres in particular, have changed in recent years as more people seek superior retail experiences to draw them out of their homes. "We aim to produce creative and exciting destinations which draw people in. We look forward to embarking on this exciting journey with Scoop," he said.

In line with reducing car emissions and encouraging cycle use and walking, towns are looking at how they can make themselves more connected to communities.

The Ipswich Vision Partnership – which includes local councils, the town's MP and business groups – has unveiled bold plans to create a "connected centre", using some of the £25million Towns Fund cash promised at this year's Budget. A £3.2 million bid to upgrade Dover's town centre has been successful.


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